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Monday, September 10, 2012

Culture for sale?

I had a chance to visit Sydney and Melbourne, Australia in June, 2000 just a few months before the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics. During my visit, I noted a diversified people there but did not notice a lot of Aboriginal Australians so that I did not get much exposure to their culture except for some aboriginal arts in souvenir stores. However, the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games broadcasted all over the world which featured everything Australian paid homage to their aboriginal people and culture in the ”Awakening” segment. Likewise the great honor of lighting the Olympic flame was given to Cathy Freeman, an Australian Aboriginal athlete who incidentally also won the 400 meters sprint that year and carried both the Australian and Aboriginal Flag during her victory lap. It was indeed a great exposure and pride for the Australian aborigines who for a long time were not even recognized by their country. On the other hand, it was also a great tourism campaign for the Australian government as it recognize and open up the richness of their aboriginal culture to the world.

Australian Aboriginal arts are not only sold and showcased in Australia but in other museums and galleries all over the world. Even their music, rituals and beliefs which are captured in "Dreamtime" stories are presented in different media for worldwide access. So does this mean that they have placed a market value for their culture? Have they sold their culture to the world? The Australian government may somehow have placed a market value on this culture as they look forward to more tourists coming in, more income generated by the people as various Aboriginal stuff are sold - arts, books, movies, videos, music but I wouldn’t say that the Australian aborigines, as a people, have “sold” their culture to world. Their culture distinguishes them from other people, their artifacts and even music can be sold individually by artists but the very essence of culture which gives a people their sense of belonging cannot be sold as long as they feel their connection, as long as there is meaning and value of these traditions in their lives. Other people may view their sacred objects and traditions differently, even from a market view, but it is their sense of belonging and pride that will ensure the preservation of their culture.

Did they lose something when they released their sacred objects and practices to outsiders? By the mere sharing of their culture, obviously not. However, culture evolves through economic progress, globalization, including displacement of people through wars and natural calamities and many of the younger generation have adapted to the ways of the world. This is not just the case for the Australian aboriginals but a lot of other endangered people of the world. They have “sold out” their culture, given up some or all of their traditions and beliefs to the practicalities of survival. This is the case of Ju/’hoansi (literally meaning people with correct speech and manner) of Southern Africa as presented in John Marshal’s documentary series “A Kalahari family.” Ju/’hoansi people are no longer wearing skins and living in bushes but have established farming communities and working out on their development projects. There are similar cases of community success in various indigenous people in my country, The Philippines, however, there are more cases of them losing their identity despite the fact that we have a National Commission on Indigenous People which is tasked to protect and promote the interest and well-being of the various indigenous people/indigenous cultural communities in our country with respect to their beliefs, customs, traditions and institutions. There are even unscrupulous people who take advantage of the poverty of these people who have lost their land through calamities and war and put them on the streets intentionally making them dirty and capitalizing on their indigenous status as if saying that their “low status” in society gives them the right to beg. I encounter a lot of these fellow Filipinos, mostly Aeta and Badjao children and women, in my commute to work as they get inside public transportations and beg. There are instances when some would sing and dance to the beat of their music from the drums made from cans. I can see that many people get irritated or are indifferent when they see them and honestly there were also times when I felt the same but it is more of anger on their exploiters and my helplessness from doing something. So many times I wonder why our government could not come up with programs to share and highlight the traditions of these indigenous people so they feel pride of their heritage and we fellow Filipinos could better appreciate them and work with them in the preservation of their culture. There are some artists and non-governmental organizations that have appreciated their culture and shared them with others, however, these are few and scattered. Maybe in time with a collective effort, we too could showcase the culture of our various indigenous communities to the world. It doesn’t matter if it starts out as an advertising campaign to promote our tourism, the more important thing is to feel pride in our diversified culture and work on preserving positive values for our next generation.

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